Which Came First, the Happy Person or the Active Person?

Looking for a little extra happiness? Move. No, we’re not talking about packing your house into a U-Haul and heading for the coast. All you really need to do is get out of your chair and take a stroll around the office.

That’s the conclusion drawn from a study called Happier People Live More Active Lives, which relied on a clever phone app to collect movement and happiness data from participants.

The app monitored people’s activity levels with user self-reports (verified and supplemented by their phones’ accelerometers) and surveyed their mood at random times during the day. Users answered survey questions related to current levels of calmness, anxiety, alertness, enthusiasm, anger, and other positive or negative feelings.

Studies in the past have tied physical activity to psychological health, finding that people who exercise regularly are less prone to anxiety and depression. But this new study looked at positive emotions rather than avoidance of the negative, and focused not on strenuous exercise but general non-sedentary movement. Relying on an app to verify activity levels and to pinpoint emotions and activities to correlated times of day also helped set this study apart from previous efforts, which recorded participant recollections only after the fact.

The study ran for seventeen months and included a large sample size of more than 12,000 people, leading to a set of rather conclusive results:

  • Happier people engage in more physical activity than less happy people.
  • Happier people start their days earlier in the morning, end their days later in the evening, and display higher levels of physical activity throughout the day.
  • People are happier during the times they are physically active than during the times they are not.

Of course what the study doesn’t answer is the classic chicken-and-egg question: Are people more physically active because they’re happy? Or are they happy because they’re physically active?

We should also point out that the happiness score for the physically active participants isn’t hugely increased over their sedentary peers. It’s just a moderate mood boost, but it is statistically significant.

Still, the bottom line remains: All things considered, if you want to add a bit of happiness to your day, don’t tie yourself to your chair. Find a way to get up and move around when you can, even if it’s not a heavy exercise session.